For Michael Wilson, chef-partner in Wilson, the new Culver City food and wine bar, cooking is a sport. You have only to watch the 35-year-old chef, son of the late Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, work out behind the stoves to realize how physical he is.
He's a blur of motion, flipping a sauté pan, saucing a pasta, dishing up a pulled-pork sandwich or a baby field greens salad. From a seat at the bar of the 4 1/2-month-old restaurant, you can watch him in action and revel in the good smells coming from the kitchen. Mounted high above the bar is a blow-up of a vintage photo of chefs performing calisthenics on the rooftop of the old Commodore hotel in New York under the direction of the tallest toque.
It's a wonderfully funny conceit and perfect to express Wilson's wry salute to the tradition-bound cooking profession. Wilson is a dude with 'tude; he eschews the toque, wears his hair closely cropped and studs in his ears. His menu is equally unconventional, sprawling all over genres and cuisines.
The restaurant occupies the corner space in a showcase building designed by Studio Pali Fekete on Washington Boulevard just east of the Helms Bakery complex. Next door is an art gallery, and from the restaurant's dining room, you can see through the gallery all the way to the architect's studio at the far end of the building where young designers sometimes pull late-nighters. That visual openness ties Wilson to an urban context, which makes the space all the more appealing.
Walk in on a weeknight and the crowd is a healthy mix of industry folks enjoying an early supper or a glass of wine and a couple of small plates, along with people from the neighborhood checking out the latest spot now that Culver City is firmly back on the culinary map. Other fairly recent openings include K-Zo sushi restaurant on Culver Boulevard and, farther up the same street, Ford's Filling Station and Tender Greens. For anybody wanting to explore Culver City's theater scene, or catch some jazz at one of the cafes or clubs, Wilson is another good spot for a quick bite.
On warmer evenings, the garden in back is the place to sit. Framed by a cinderblock wall painted bright orange and furnished with heat lamps, the patio easily doubles the restaurant's space, and with fewer hard surfaces, it's quieter back here. There's more space between the tables too.
Wilson was one of the two cooks behind 5 Dudley, a real insider's place in Venice, before Antonio Muré and Stefano de Lorenzo bought it and turned it into an Italian restaurant called Piccolo. Wilson stayed for a while and cooked there with Muré, who believed in him enough to become his partner, with De Lorenzo, in Wilson. His crazy-quilt California-global cuisine must be as exotic to them as regional Italian cooking would have been to this California-born chef.
Wilson is endearingly passionate about everything to do with cooking. He's adventurous in his tastes and unafraid to get out there and try something wild, such as rabbit sloppy Joe or a pulled-pork sandwich with African spices and fresh cherry barbecue sauce.
Sometimes, though, that unbridled enthusiasm carries him too far away from real skills. And pasta isn't necessarily one of them. His tortelli filled with potato and fig are a bit lumpen, the dough thick and pasty, though the flavors are appealing.
More of everything But he's a generous cook who serves up huge portions. His philosophy seems to be more is better — more spice, more smoke, more sauce, more everything. Tea-smoked whitefish is so smoky the delicacy of the fish is obscured. French onion stew is so concentrated, it's like eating spoonfuls of glace de viande (meat glaze). And I don't think it's a mistake as much as just the way he likes it. Intense, hard to ignore, not a bit subtle.
Still, he understands and makes the effort to buy good quality ingredients. He doesn't use just any tomatoes, or any greens. He buys the good stuff. A few weeks ago, he was serving late-season heirloom tomatoes with a little basil and olive oil, and they were absolutely delicious. A plate of roasted black Mission figs with thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma, emerald wild arugula leaves and St. Augur blue cheese makes another good first course in which the ingredients are center stage.
Some of his best finds and boldest experiments appear under the category "foodbar" at the top of the menu. That's where I find whole roasted sardines with olives and toasted garlic. How many places do you even see sardines? And these plump whole fish, while on the large side, have a gutsy flavor that holds its own against the toasted garlic cloves.
The minute I spy it on the menu I have to order charred octopus; it's a rare sighting. In this version — a salad with green beans and not only very charred but also very chewy octopus tentacles — the cephalopod seems like an interloper in an otherwise graceful salad, splashed with sweet vinegar and green-gold extra-virgin olive oil.
Just when you think you have this chef pegged as an over-the-top cook, he can surprise you with something as simple — and usually as boring — as a chicken breast. Covered in a pungent cilantro pesto, Wilson's Jidori chicken breast is a revelation, and a fine supper, because it comes with mashed potatoes that pack a wallop of wasabi.
Braised short ribs are tender and beefy, served in their juices with smashed rutabaga, turnips and a slew of market vegetables.
The special one night is a warm herring and potato salad, a favorite with chefs in France, where you usually fish the herring from a terrine topped off with olive oil. Here, it arrives already plated, and the silvery, lightly pickled fish is a piquant contrast to the earthy starchiness of the potatoes and the cool garnish of lemon cucumbers, watercress and rosy-tipped icicle radishes.
For something lighter, there's spaghetti alla lina tossed with olive oil, tomato, arugula leaves and toasted almonds. It tastes like something an Italian would throw together on the spur of the moment, fresh and delicious.
The best main course has to be his "slowww" roasted pork with African spices, which is so falling-apart tender it doesn't need a knife. In fact, this is the same pork that goes into lunchtime's pulled-pork sandwich. What those African spices are, it's hard to say, but he's used them with utter abandon, giving the pork an intriguing depth of flavor. He serves it with polenta studded with fresh corn kernels; the fresh cherry barbecue sauce teeters on the edge of going too far, but if you eat it sparingly, it works.
I'm surprised one night, though, when our waiter proposes tagliolini with truffles as a special at $38. When I ask what kind of truffles they are, he tells me they're winter truffles. White or black? It turns out they are not the fabulously expensive white ones from Alba. And they can't be true black truffles because they don't come into season until much later.
They're the poor man's truffle, faint of perfume and flavor, known as summer truffles. And charging $38 for a dish made with these truffles adds up to taking advantage of guests who don't know the difference. The fact that the same policy prevails at both La Botte (Muré and De Lorenzo's other restaurant, in Santa Monica) and Piccolo makes it seem even more egregious.
Wilson's wine list has a definite Italian inflection, which is all to the good. In keeping with the food and wine bar theme, there are a number of wines by the glass, many of them under $10, a price point that's pretty rare these days.
You could start with a glass of Pinot Grigio from Abbazia di Novacella in Alto Adige or a Vernaccia from Terruzzi & Puthod in Tuscany and follow it with a glass of Chianti Senesi or an Aglianico del Vulture from Campania, a great match with that slow-roasted pork with African spices.
But he's also got a wide-ranging beer list that includes Belgian and Belgian-style brews, a lager from Brazil and a Czech-style pilsener from California. Beer would be the way to go with many of Wilson's bolder dishes.
Desserts are sturdy and satisfying, especially the generous fruit crumble served piping hot, or any of the house-made ice creams.
In many ways, in fact, Wilson is a California take on the gastropubs that have swept through London, a place to get some decent, hearty grub (emphasis on the hearty) made by a chef dedicated to the idea of fresh, local food, accompanied by a glass of well-made beer or wine. Prices aren't crazy, the scene is fun, and the chef gets to do his thing in a lively, convivial atmosphere.
Wilson is one more sign that young chefs are heading for the hoods where rents are cheaper, the competition isn't as stiff, and the vibe is local and casual.
Location: 8631 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 287-2093; www.wilsonfood+andwine.com.
Ambience: Modernist "foodbarcafé" in a stylish new Culver City complex with a back patio. An industry crowd at lunch; at dinner, an interesting mix of the adventurous and the hungry.
Service: Friendly and personable.
Price: Appetizers, $10 to $17; main courses, $20 to $26; desserts, $8 to $12.
Best dishes: Roasted sardines with olives; figs with prosciutto and arugula; warm potato and herring salad; tagliatelle alla carrettiera; Jidori chicken with cilantro pesto; slow roasted pork with African spices.
Wine list: Nice selection of wines by the glass, many of them under $10; some good beers as well. Corkage fee, $25.
Best table: A seat at the bar or a table in the back garden.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday for dinner, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Wine and beer. Parking on street and in back.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.